During the Covid-19 pandemic, access to the Internet played an important role in allowing industries to continue to function. Today, even with many people back to work in-person, the importance of Internet access for jobs across all industries has become even more evident. This is especially true as it relates to the energy industry in rural Appalachia, where broadband has been identified as an important factor for the success of energy transition initiatives.

The Importance of Broadband Access

Enhancing connectivity through investments in broadband and internet is a necessity to support any kind of diversified economic development. This is because inequitable access to the internet restricts opportunities for work and impedes “education, healthcare, public services, and the civic engagement that are all critically needed to drive equitable economic growth.” In rural and remote communities, like many of those across Appalachia, roughly one-third of residents cannot access high speed internet. This presents a large roadblock to the prospect of economic growth within Appalachia, where many communities are trying to recover from the closure of mines and coal-fired power plants.

As it relates to the Appalachian energy market, research has found that enhanced connectivity plays a crucial role in successful energy transition initiatives. For example, in one study, researchers identified Appalachian counties that have successfully transitioned from [traditional energy dependence] while sustaining growth, and sought to assess what factors facilitated more successful community transition. Here, researchers found that one of the most important factors necessary to support diversified economic development was investments in broadband and internet. This conclusion is reflected in the National Economic Transition Platform, which was “crafted by local leaders in America’s coal communities to give national policymakers a framework for a comprehensive national energy transition program.” This Platform highlights the importance of prioritizing connectivity through broadband access to stimulate economic development and build community resiliency.

Overall, investments in broadband and internet would help develop remote work opportunities, increase access to training opportunities, and make Appalachia a more enticing and plausible location for new forms of economic development. These investments play an especially important role in contributing to the success of any energy transition initiatives within the region. The question that arises, however, is how struggling Appalachian communities can afford to pay for such investments.

Helping Communities Pay for Improvements

With the importance of digital connectivity to economic development becoming more evident in recent years, governments at every level have started seeking ways to fund such investments. For example, in the past two years we’ve seen historic levels of federal funding to expand broadband, including a combined $85 billion from the CARES Act, the American Rescue Plan, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, all intended to increase broadband access, affordability, and adoption. However, navigating the maze of federal grant applications to obtain funding can be extremely difficult for officials at the local level. In addition, local officials may have a hard time identifying what grants are available to begin with. This is why it is important for local organizations to become involved and help communities obtain funding. For example, organizations such as the Just Transition Fund (JTF), which was initially created to help local organizations secure funding through the POWER Initiative (a federal program targeted to communities impacted by the changing coal economy), have started to institute programs to help communities apply for and secure broadband funding. Currently, the JTF provides a number of resources to communities to support things such as grant writing to put together a successful application, identifying grant programs that are a good fit for a community project, and building internal staff capacity to further develop and refine a community broadband project. As of this month, the JTF has also launched its new Federal Access Center (“The Center”), “a one-stop resource hub that will build on JTF’s track record of helping coal communities secure public funding for local economic solutions.” Local leaders across the region can reach out to the JTF online to start the process of collaboration, and begin working to obtain federal funding.

Another source of broadband investment stems from leveraging existing utilities such as electricity. This involves state officials working with existing utility companies to expand their infrastructure while also including the necessary fiber cables to provide broadband to areas that were previously off the grid. Across the country, using electric utilities and cooperatives as  providers for rural broadband is becoming a more prominent alternative. Every week, there is news of another state government or local organization proposing plans to expand broadband access in this way. For example, in Virginia, there have been several successful partnerships with power companies. In fact, thanks to one such project, Surrey County became one of the first counties in Virginia to achieve universal broadband access. However, although this form of broadband expansion is becoming more prominent, there are difficulties in trying to implement similar plans in many areas. First, some states do not have laws allowing for the use of existing utility easements—which grant the right to install electric facilities on privately owned land—for installation of telecommunications infrastructure. Therefore, a company must obtain new easements from private landowners, which can be timely and expensive. As it relates to the cost, many states will provide some funding to utility companies to work on broadband expansion, but it is not always enough. Oftentimes, utility companies will shift the burden of any unexpected cost increases onto consumers. In the context of expanding broadband access, many of these communities are already struggling economically, so an increase in energy prices can cause serious difficulties. For Appalachian communities to attract new energy industries, they will have to work with local organizations to find a way to address these difficulties and provide broadband access for all residents.